The Black Hills in South Dakota are famous for their rocks. But some of the most fascinating stones are found nearly 20 stories below ground at Wind Cave National Park near Hot Springs. One of the longest caves in the world, Wind Cave is a terrific family travel destination. While the miles of prairie land above is filled with hiking trails and wildlife like prairie dogs, bison and pronghorn, the caves far below the surface offer a completely different type of exploration.
Deep Underground at Wind Cave National Park
I’ll be honest… small spaces, deep tunnels and being underground are not usually my idea of a good time.
I bought the tickets for the Fairgrounds Tour, the longest and most strenuous walking tour of the caves, without a qualm. I knew we could handle the 1.5 hour, half mile trail with 450 stairs without a problem. It wasn’t until we arrived at the elevator that would take us down to the caves that my heart began to beat rather rapidly and my breathing became a bit shallow. Trying to forget just how deep inside the earth we would be, my best effort was made to focus on the information Ranger Whitney was sharing with us about the rock formations. A unique formation called boxwork is abundant here, with formations called ‘popcorn’ and ‘frostwork’ found in larger rooms.
Very quickly my family was loaded into an elevator and deposited 204 feet below ground in a matter of seconds. I’ve yet to figure out how that ride didn’t feel like falling.
Once below ground our large group set off, following the single guide.
For much of the tour we followed Ranger Whitney, talking among ourselves. When pathways would widen or rooms were large, she would stop, letting everyone gather in, and tell us about the formations we were seeing.
The tour itself was not too difficult. One set of stairs took us 89 steps up, while a couple sets took us nearly the same distance down. Pathways through the cave are smooth and safety railings are in place to keep people from falling into nearby caverns that may drop hundreds of feet (only slightly terrifying).
Other Cave Tours at the Wind Cave
Wind Cave National Park offer 3 cave tours for the moderately adventurous.
- The Garden of Eden Tour is the least strenuous and lasts about 1 hour.
- The Natural Entrance Tour begins near the walk in entrance near the caves only known natural entrance. At 1 1/4 hours, it is moderately strenuous.
- The Fairgrounds Tour is the most strenuous, with 450 steps.
For the more adventurous among us, Wind Cave National Park has a couple exciting options:
- See the cave the way the first explorers did- by candlelight! Candlelight Cave Tours take place in less developed areas of the cave, the terrain is more rugged and participants must be at least 8 years old.
- Or leave the trails altogether with the Wind Cave Tour. The basics of caving are taught as you crawl through tunnels during this 4 hour tour.
|Cave tours are on a first come, first served basis. I recommend spending at least an hour in the Visitor’s Center before your tour. There is a lot to see and do!Wear proper footwear and bring a jacket- temperatures in the cave are quite a bit cooler than outside.If you plan to spend much of the day at the park, be sure to pack a lunch as the park has very limited options.
Don’t forget about the Junior Ranger program! Age appropriate workbooks are available free and upon completion kids receive a Junior Ranger Badge. (If you are taking the last tour of the day, be sure to grab the badges for your kids before hand and have your Ranger check their books and present them after the tour.)
Camping is available at Elk Mountain Campground in the park
We enjoyed the Hot Springs KOA. The girls especially liked the pool and mini golf.
The Black Hills are a terrific family travel destination and Wind Cave National Park should definitely be included in your South Dakota itinerary.
View more images in my Black Hills Flickr set.
Just so you know…. We paid for our Black Hills vacation. I will always share when our vacations are hosted or we are otherwise compensated.